Manhattan murder mystery a real-life marvel
REVIEWED BY LESLEY HUGHES
IT’S 6:30 on a Sunday morning — Oct. 24, 1943. The story begins with the victim, 22-year-old Patricia Burton Lonergan; rich, pretty, vivacious, possessor of an insatiable appetite for the finer things in life. The reader is left outside the locked bedroom door of her lush New York brownstone with a mysterious sense of dread. The body of “Patsy,” bloody and brutalized by blows from matching heavy candelabras, will not be discovered for many hours.
Patsy was a flamboyant member of the city’s Cafe Society — a culture in which the wealthy smoked, drank and danced all night, and often slept guiltlessly through the next day.
But the future heiress is not the focus of this true crime story. The spotlight shifts quickly to a possible suspect in her murder: Patsy’s Canadian husband of two years, Wayne Lonergan. Their marriage had dissolved acrimoniously not long before she was bludgeoned to death.
Winnipeg writer Allan Levine, noted scholar, prolific social historian and Winnipeg Free Press columnist, was looking for a new story to tell when he stumbled across a 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine online. In it, master crime writer Raymond Chandler had cited “The Ten Greatest Crimes of the Century” which included the murder of Patricia Burton. Levine had found the crime, the characters and the criminal he was seeking.
After more than seven decades, the Lonergan case still offers everything to readers of non-fiction who want to be to shocked, appalled and frightened while remaining in the comfort and safety of their own homes. Details Are Unprintable is the classic legal procedural, with the bonus of Levine’s exceptional ability to see and explain what a single story says about an entire society.
The Lonergans were a handsome couple and neither of them had jobs, but otherwise they were a study in contrasts. She was wealthy, while he depended completely on her for both money and status. They both loved clubbing, seeing and being seen, yet each seemed to resent the pleasure of the other. Rumours circulated about Wayne’s sexual orientation; it was believed he was the former lover of Patsy’s bisexual father, the latter having introduced Wayne into the luxurious New York “high society” and to his daughter.
But Levine’s interest in the Lonergan story is much broader than mere divorce and murder among the glamorous. He deftly captures the ambiance of New York in 1930s and ’40s, including the little-known and complex anti-Semitism of a city now celebrated worldwide for Jewish leadership and culture. Levine’s research reveals that media coverage of the murder, the marriage and the trials (there were two) was so sensational and spellbinding that it briefly knocked the Second World War off the front pages of newspapers around the world. It was, as Levine suggests, a show “bigger than Broadway.”
Ultimately, Wayne Lonergan was found guilty of murdering his wife and spent the next 22 years of his life in jail, some of it in the notorious Sing Sing prison. Yet there was not a shred of physical evidence linking him to the crime.
How could that happen? In answering that question, Details Are Unprintable provides a heart-wrenching reminder of former grotesque attitudes towards any sexual orientation other than righteous heterosexuality.
Much of the media interest in the case stemmed from the likelihood that Lonergan was a closeted homosexual. In that era, homosexuality was regarded as criminal perversion, perhaps more loathsome than the communist hiding under the bed.
Lonergan appears to have confessed to the crime of murder in order to stop his public humiliation; he claimed he simply wanted to end his shaming. He later recanted this confession, but it was too late. The jury seemed eager to punish him.
Was Wayne Lonergan guilty? Levine has a convincing answer, but to share it would be a major spoiler.
On his release from prison in 1965, Lonergan was deported to Canada. Returning to Toronto, he caught the sympathetic attention of journalist Scott Young, father of musician Neil Young, and appeared on the edgy CBC TV show This Hour Has Seven Days. He also caught the attention of Canadian actress and comedian Barbara Hamilton, who became his companion and provided his financial support until his death from cancer in 1986.
Wayne Lonergan told the Globe and Mail in 1972 that “There’s a really good book in this incident.” He was correct, and Details Are Unprintable is that book.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer.
Details are Unprintable: Wayne Lonergan and the Sensational Cafe Society Murder By Allan Levine Lyons Press, 256 pages, $35